Skip to main content


Published onMay 26, 2020

John Stuart Mill—utilitarian, liberal, democrat, feminist—embraced eccentrics and geniuses and cast a jaundiced eye on society: “At present individuals are lost in the crowd.” Europe, he warned, “is decidedly advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike.” The relentless pressure toward homogenization was crushing individuality. “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”1

By the end of his life, Mill was at least flirting with socialism.2 (Not totalitarian state control, not the abolition of markets. Instead, workers entitled to govern their own workplaces.) But writers we routinely place on the right sound the same ominous tones. Max Stirner, embraced for over a century by individualist anarchists, was adamant that society not be permitted to limit his “ownness” or individuality. “But ownness I will not have taken from me. And ownness is precisely what every society has designs on, precisely what is to succumb to its power.” Society was yet another ghost, another phantasm to which people stupidly prostrate themselves. “Ghosts in every corner!” he proclaimed. “Nothing is more to me than myself!”3

Likewise Ayn Rand. Anthem’s narrator manages to wrest free of the mandatory habit of referring to himself—of thinking of himself—as “we” and reclaims “I,” or, as he rejoices in closing, “The sacred word: EGO.” “To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.”4 In We the Living, Victor scolds Kira: “Frankly,” he says, “your attitude is slightly anti-social.” She challenges the idea of a duty to society. To just whom is it owed? Victor’s script doesn’t have the savviest lines, so he answers, “Society, Kira, is a stupendous whole.” She’s unmoved. “If you write a whole line of zeroes, it’s still—nothing.”5

The world champion of this sort of thing must be American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even in officially conceding that we need society, he can’t help reviling it. “No man is fit for society who has fine thoughts,” he announces, with a contempt for ordinary folks more scathing than any Mill adopted. “The people are to be taken in very small doses,” he scowls. “If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”6 “Laws and letters and creeds seem a travesty of truth,” he holds. “Nature will not have us fret and fume. She does not like our benevolence or our learning much better than she likes our frauds and wars. When we come out of the caucus, or the bank, or the Abolition-convention, or the Temperance-meeting, or the Transcendental club into the fields and woods, she says to us, ‘So hot? my little Sir.’”7

Like the claim that rules are the enemy of freedom, these claims are plausible. Rand’s Kira wants to be an engineer and Victor is aghast: “I do not believe that engineering is a profession for women.” Kira is endearingly stubborn. Unfazed by reminders of what women aren’t supposed to do, by reminders that she’ll be building for the Communists she despises, she suggests that it’s easy: “I’m going to build because I want to build.” She flicks away the social and political stakes as if they’re weightless—as, or so Rand invites us to think, anyone with enough gumption could do.

A distressingly wide variety of scripts dictate what people like you must or must not do; what careers make sense, if any; what your religious faith requires and forbids. When others brandish those scripts, when you hear the lines rattling around reproachfully in your own head, when you live with the anguish of being closeted—and there are closets that have nothing to do with sexual orientation—it’s tempting to think that society is the enemy of individuality. If you’re thrashed within an inch of your life, or an inch more than that, for cross-dressing, more self-confident assertion wouldn’t have solved your problem. It would have aggravated it. Here too, society is throttling your individuality. So what’s the mistake?

Consider the stars of a story that’s been told for thousands of years: children brought up by wolves, by bears, by monkeys, by gazelles, you name it. These feral children wander out of the village, or kidnappers abandon them, or they trail too far behind the other children playing in the woods and get lost. They reappear only years later. Free of social interference, of those maddening oppressive scripts, would they be like trees developing in accordance with their inward forces? Would they be mighty specimens of individuality?

Meet the “wild boy of Aveyron,” captured in the woods in 1799: “a disgustingly dirty child affected with spasmodic movements and often convulsions who swayed back and forth ceaselessly like certain animals in the menagerie, who bit and scratched those who opposed him, who showed no sort of affection for those who attended him; and who was in short, indifferent to everything and attentive to nothing.” Eleven or twelve years old, he’d probably been abandoned when he was four or five. When the Aveyron peasant who lovingly cared for him dropped him off in Paris, the wild boy “underwent sudden separation from his benefactor without reluctance or regret.” Seven years later, his assiduous teacher reported some progress. Still, he confessed, “the education of this young man is incomplete and must always remain so.” His intellectual progress, “which in children growing up in civilized surroundings is the natural fruit of time and circumstances, is here the slow and laborious result of a very active education in which the most powerful methods are used to obtain most insignificant results.”8

Trust political rulers to come up with an obscene variant of the usual tale. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, reports that Egyptian king Psammetichus wanted to figure out who was more ancient, Egyptians or Phrygians. So he gave two “common” infants—right, we would say they weren’t his to give—to a herdsman and told him to make sure that no one say a word in their presence. Just give them milk to drink, he went on, and let goats keep them company. Psammetichus thought the pair would eventually speak a pure or natural or original language. About two years later, both children started saying “bekos.” That, it turns out, is the Phrygian word for bread. Case closed: The Phrygians were most ancient.9 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II tried the same stunt in the thirteenth century.10 So did King James IV of Scotland around 1500. He gave two babies to a woman who couldn’t speak, “desiring hereby to know what languages they had when they came to the age of perfect speech. Some say they spoke good Hebrew,” reported the noncommittal chronicler.11 What, not Phrygian?

Here’s one last tale, stomach-turningly recent and all too well attested. When Danielle was almost seven years old, the police of her little Florida town removed her from her house. Shit and cockroaches were everywhere, trash and broken windows too, and a 46-pound girl wearing a chock full diaper, her hair full of lice, lay on a torn mattress on the floor. Her mother did change her diaper sometimes. “The pile of dirty diapers in that room must have been four feet high,” growled the detective. Her mother had fed her, barely, and had kept her alive, barely, but otherwise did essentially nothing. As far as anyone could tell, she didn’t even talk to her daughter.

Danielle didn’t speak Phrygian. Danielle didn’t speak Hebrew. Danielle didn’t speak, period. Although brain scans found nothing wrong, she seemed utterly indifferent to other people. The pediatric psychologist who examined her reported, “There was no light in her eye, no response or recognition.... We saw a little girl who didn’t even respond to hugs or affection. Even a child with the most severe autism responds to those.” A couple of saints adopted her, and while she’s doing better now than you might imagine, language is still beyond her.12 I don’t see how she could experience anything answering to “that sacred word: ego,” how she could follow Rand’s constant advice and rationally pursue her own interests.

If no one talks to you, you don’t learn language. Starved of human contact—of society—you wouldn’t be a heroic individual. You wouldn’t be recognizable as an individual at all. Applaud as ferociously as you like when Stirner unmasks society as a ghost, when Rand exposes a whole line of zeroes, but without those ghostly zeroes you’re doomed. You might adopt Emerson’s advice and take other people in very small doses, but you’d better not make those doses too small and better not launch that regimen too soon. The narrators of the classic feral children tales often emphasize the children’s curious traits: They lope on all fours, they have an unbelievably acute sense of smell, and so on. The uncanny blurring of human form and animal behavior offers a creepy reminder of how dependent we are on society. Not just to get food, clothing, and shelter, though please, don’t sneeze at that, and please, don’t boast about how good you are at taking your gun or hunter’s knife or snazzy REI camping gear—I bet you are not expert in spinning Gore-Tex out of your inward forces—and going survival camping in the wilderness. We’re dependent on society to learn how to talk, to become recognizably human in the first place.

Crucial as it is, language is just the beginning. You meet someone at a party, you show up for a job interview, you strike up a friendly conversation with your new neighbor: You need to introduce yourself. You do not describe your ownness, which is suspiciously ineffable. Instead you rattle off facts about yourself. And not just any facts. Unless the context is peculiar, you don’t give your height and weight; you don’t ask your interlocutor if she’d like to examine your fingerprints; you don’t report that your second toe is longer than your big toe. Instead, you say what you do for a living, whether you’re married, if you have kids. You mention your religious faith, your hobbies, where you went to school, which branch of the military you served in, the work you do for a local charity, the instrument you play in an amateur jazz band. But wait! When you introduce yourself, you’re supposed to say something about who you are. Why are you brandishing sociologically loaded facts about yourself?

Because that’s exactly who you are. You are the person who occupies those social roles, who has those social relationships, who pursues those social activities. The real you is not timidly hiding behind those facts instead of offering a properly transparent introduction. Is the real you that erratic soundtrack in your head, the churning cascade of thoughts, feelings, images? I doubt it, but even if I’m wrong, notice how extensively your mental life is wrapped up in your social life: in what triggers your feelings, in what they’re about, in what you’re picturing.

Should we pretend to be sophisticated? Perhaps your ownness is your genetic inheritance. Gaze into your crystal ball and discover a brave new world where genetic mapping is cheaper than ever and people introduce themselves by swapping tiny computer chips with their complete mappings. (Will they care about their privacy? Whether they do, and whether they hammer out arrangements to protect it, are questions about their social lives, not about their inward forces.) Won’t that demonstrate their individuality?

Not at all. Time for a science-fiction scenario. We take you at birth—before, if you’d rather—and clone you. We produce a couple of dozen newborn infants genetically identical to you. Now we buckle them into the time machine and drop them off, one at a time, across human history. One goes to ancient Greece, a second to Albania in the glory days of Enver Hoxha, a third to revolutionary France, a fourth to the Mongolian steppes, and so on. We have them brought up by people, not by wolves. Some of their families are rich, some poor; some aristocrats, some commoners; some highly dignified, some despised minorities. Are all these infants you? Maybe they have the same eye color (big deal), and maybe they look somewhat alike, though only somewhat: Their nutritional histories are different. Far more important, their social lives are different. Take the desk-job version of you and transplant it to the piers, or if you work on the piers or something like them, run the thought experiment the other way. Do you look the same? Do you have the same body? The point is not that your genes don’t matter. Of course they do. But your genetic profile is an indefinitely—I don’t say infinitely—plastic set of potentials, and what actually becomes of you, who you actually become, is at least as much a matter of your social activities as it is of your genes.

There is an everyday experience of being uncomfortable or distant in a role. You’re preoccupied. You act mechanically. Or you perform ironically. Apparently you’re the model waiter, courteous and solicitous, but silently, you curse the obese guys in their fancy suits and fantasize about spitting in their martinis and sprinkling their steaks with arsenic. When they reward your excellent service with outsized tips, you aren’t grateful. You’re contemptuous: The chumps are too stupid to realize you loathe them. But it doesn’t make sense to analyze that experience by summoning up some presocial self that somehow naturally doesn’t fit the role. Your detachment is social, too. It draws on rich cultural scripts, on images of anomie and alienation, on resentful adolescent fantasies of vengeful superiority. It is caught up with your frustrated expectations, and you can’t begin to make sense of those without grasping the multifarious ways your social experiences have played into them. And it depends on living in what sociologists call a differentiated society, where there are many roles, many institutions, and you can exit one role and move to another. True, your identity isn’t wholly consumed by any one of those roles. The fallacy is inferring that your identity stands apart from, prior to, all of them.

Even the solitary activities you adore are deeply indebted to society. You don’t just take your Gore-Tex parka on your camping trip; you also drive to get to the site you love. And you learned the canny tricks of survival camping from others. You adore playing the piano, but you didn’t spin the piano out of your inward forces. If you play sheet music, your pleasure is dependent on composers and publishers. If you pride yourself on improvising, still your head is full of music, you’ve learned a vocabulary and a grammar, and no matter how creative you are, you will be indebted to the music of many others. Maybe some emperor can try isolating two or three infants from all music—not a single lullaby! he decrees—and then see what they can do with a piano. (Or should he wait for them to design and build an instrument?) Good luck with that. Kira wants to be an engineer. She might have her own studio, her own firm. But even if she didn’t win the education she sought in the Technological Institute, none of her engineering would be possible without society. She flees misogyny, and more power to her. But she isn’t fleeing society.

So the project of modeling individualism on a rejection of society is hopeless. But that doesn’t make individualism hopeless. I prize individualism every bit as much as Mill and the rest do, though I could live without the arrogant elitism of much of what they say. Individualism is for you and me, too, not just for eccentrics and geniuses. But like everything else about us, individualism itself is richly social. How so? Let’s canvass social changes that liberated people from their assigned roles and allowed them to find their own paths. I’ll barely sketch these changes, but trust me, there are real histories here.

For centuries, people worked as serfs. You were born as a serf, tied to this local lord on this piece of land, because your great-great-...-grandfather swore an oath of fealty to the lord’s ancestor. Now we have labor markets. You can decide what sort of job to pursue. Can you get whatever job you want? Of course not. But the contrast is still dramatic. So, too, for the emancipation of slaves.

Once upon a time, marriages were arranged. After sometimes complicated family negotiations, your parents presented your new spouse. Later, you gain the right to veto the proposal, even if doing so is fraught. Later yet, you present a proposed spouse to your parents, or your proposed spouse asks your parents for permission to ask for your hand, and your parents can veto. And finally you choose who to marry.

When there was an established church, you had a host of obligations, like it or not. Maybe you had to attend services at that church. Maybe you had to tithe. Maybe a range of legal disabilities were imposed on you: You couldn’t hold political or military office. When the government gets out of the business of mandating religion, things are up to you. Where should you worship? Or should you worship at all?

People used to cast society as part of a great chain of being or a patriarchal family or a body politic. Don’t ridicule those metaphors: They rightly foreground inequality and dependence. In those days, governments ruled over passive subjects. Kings said their authority was a trust from God. Subjects had no choice about governing arrangements. If they were lucky, they could humbly petition for redress of grievances. The rise of democracy topples all that. Subjects struggle to become bold citizens. They insist that government trace its authority to them, not to God. They insist that rulers are public servants, not haughty masters. And they win individual rights. If you like, you can insist that rights are natural. But whatever you mean by that, rights needs to be recognized—and enforced—in law.

Work, love, pray, and more: not as society tells you to, not as the government requires you to, but as you see fit. But the difference between feudalism and labor markets, between arranged marriage and marriage for love, between established churches and voluntary affiliations, is emphatically not the difference between society and something else. Each side of each pair is social through and through. Individualism is a way of organizing social relationships, not something set apart from or against social relationships. To be an individual is to be free to move in and out of social roles and to have plenty of choices within those roles, to find your own way through the rich, tangled maze of social possibilities.

“There is no such thing as society,” intoned the great Tory prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. The ensuing flap led 10 Downing Street to issue that favorite dodge of politicians, a clarifying statement. “Society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. She prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept.”13 But society isn’t just you and me and millions of other individuals. It’s also the way we’re organized, the whole host of institutional arrangements, cultural resources, and more. The giveaway is Thatcher’s willingness to invoke families. The family is surely another social institution.

Thatcher meant to protest a vicious or unthinking tendency to demand that the government solve all kinds of problems, though she uttered her infamous claim in the midst of defending a government-imposed national core curriculum. Maybe we ask too much of government. Maybe we ask not enough of it. Maybe we ask too much on some matters, not enough on others. We do and should debate those policies. But it is confused to underwrite skepticism about government action, or the fear that it will destroy individualism, by denying the existence of society. When people play that as a trump card, don’t be impressed. Instead, act faintly embarrassed and try to change the subject quickly, before more nonsense erupts.

No such thing as society? Happily, there is. Without it, we couldn’t be individuals.


No comments here